After nearly being declared persona-non-grata on arrival at the Murtala Mohammed International Airport - for the crime of being in possession of a ‘damaged’ passport - it became mandatory to visit Abuja and have my passport ‘repaired.’ (On Arrival at Murtala Muhammed Airport. http://www.nigeriavillagesquare.com/chika-ezeanya/on-arrival-at-murtala-mohammed-airport.html)
During the trip to the capital city, I comforted myself with the thought that it will be a quick-fix. As the alleged fault was with broken electronic chips, I imagined that my dealings will be with a passport electrician or rewire. He would take one expert look at my passport, place it under some sort of microscope for a more intense scrutiny, slide it open with some sophisticated gadget and fix it within an hour, all at a minimal cost. Perhaps, we will even haggle over the cost as is the habit with all repairmen.
My travails began at the entrance gate of the Immigration Office. With a deep-etched frown and a violent wave of the metal detector, my taxi was ordered to turn back at the gate by one of the numerous security men in Immigration uniform. I alighted, and walked towards the officer. Looking the other way, and with a dismissive wave of hand, as if shooing a dog away, he directed me to a bungalow by the perimeter fence. Following, I found myself inside a large, almost bare room, but for a desk, two chairs and a noisy ceiling fan. Two ladies sat chatting away. One rose absent mindedly and reached for my bag. The other proceeded to run a metal detector across the length of my frame and afterwards felt all over my body with her hands.
‘Is it new passport or renewal?’ She asked as she felt here and there for an AK47, strapped bomb, charms and amulets.
‘No, it’s nothing serious,’ I reassured her. ‘Just a case of a damaged passport.’
‘That one na new issuance.’ It was her turn to assure me.
‘No,’ I insisted. ‘My passport will expire in 2016. It’s just the electronic chips that need fixing.’
She laughed as if I was insisting that she was European and not African. ‘Aunty, I am telling you. It is treated as new issuance.’
‘Are you serious?’ I gave out my involuntary exclamation phrase. ‘How long will that take?’
‘It’s up to you.’ She answered with a shrug, looking away. ‘As you are early today, if you want it tomorrow morning, we can arrange. But if you go inside it will take about five days.’ She had finished frisking my torso and stood staring at me.
Images of papers, workshops and classes I needed to deliver, filled my mind. ‘Madam, I have to leave this country day after tomorrow, no matter what.’
‘It’s possible,’ she nodded with a smile and looked away. The other officer had gone outside to take a call. I waited for her to complete her sentence, but she looked on straight ahead, an indication that the continuation of the conversation was up to me.
‘How do I go about it?’ I asked.
‘Its N35,000. We do it for people all the time.’ She answered nonchalantly, going back to her seat and humming to the tune of Dbanj’s Oliver Twist. My heart skipped a beat or two. I could barely feed after giving out all the money, clothing and just about everything I came home with. Where did she expect me to get N35,000 from?
‘N35,000?’ I repeated in a voice that came out sounding as if she had asked for my life in exchange for a new passport. ‘For what?’
“Emergency.” She threw out casually.
A lady entered and the officer stood up to hug her warmly calling her ‘my sister.’ Must be family, I thought, stepping aside to allow for familial exchanges, and to make enough room for the lady’s richly embroidered, flowing Arabian gown. The officer reached for her skirt, and grabbing a heavy bunch of keys, opened a drawer and retrieved four passport documents that she handed to the lady.
Heavy gold bracelets jingled as she thumbed through the passports. Her generous smile showed a gold tooth. Money changed hands, and it was the officer’s turn to smile.
‘I will send my sister tomorrow. She needs the same service.’ The officer’s ‘sister’ said as she turned to go. ‘She will call you before she comes.’
‘No problem.’ The officer rose to see her ‘sister’ off a few meters outside the door.
Back inside the room, she extended the Naira notes to me, ‘It’s good as you are here now, count and see that I did not charge you.’
I refused to take the money from her hand. She would go on to insist ‘Count it, Aunty. I charged this woman 35,000 per one and I did four passports for her. Why should I cheat you? ‘
I snapped out of my shock and told her that I would rather go inside to see what I could do for myself.
‘Oya come,’ Her tone was a bit lower. ‘How much do you have?’
I didn’t have anything, I told her that. I thought I was coming to repair a passport, not procure a new one – I had made absolutely no budget for a new passport.
She asked that I wait, pulled out her phone and put a call through. She interspaced every word with ‘sir,’ as she tried to explain ‘my situation.’
Turning to me after her call, she declared, ‘Aunty, we are all human beings. As you have explained your predicament to me, and you know say am not the one that will do it, I will give it you for N28,000, last.’ Her face was sober, as if she just lost a dear friend to a road accident. To my God who made me and you,’ she swore, touching her tongue with the tip of her forefinger and lifting it to the ceiling, ‘I will not even gain anything myself.’
I thanked her for her kindness and proceeded on the long trek from the gate to the main administrative building.
Inside, I was informed that the Nigeria Immigration Service does not hire passport mechanics, electricians or rewires. ‘You need a new passport, madam,’ came the curt reply. My explanations about how I had never heard of a damaged passport in any part of planet earth, and how I did not budget for a new passport and how the expiry date was 2016, were met with disinterested looks and blank stares. I was directed to an office, which ended up becoming my home for four harrowing days.
After parting with less than half the amount charged at the gate, I was issued a new passport. Now, each time I handle the passport, a prayer pours forth from my lips; I supplicate for the longevity of the electronic chips. Please join me in prayers.
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